Tag: vera farmiga

When They See Us


When They See Us (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The four-part mini-series “When They See Us” is the kind of experience that envelops the viewer so entirely, it is impossible to walk away from it without a strong reaction. I walked away from it twice—not because of its running time of almost five hours but because I felt that the emotions it created inside me became so overpowering, I felt it was my responsibility to take a break, process what I had seen thus far, and go back to it once I was clear-headed. I can sit through movies that are eight, ten, or even twelve hours long. But it is rare when I feel compelled to self-evaluate because the work in front me is so overwhelming, so rich with purpose and ideas. It should be seen by everybody, especially by high school students who are learning about racism in America, specifically our flawed justice system and its relationship with black and brown people.

Most would say that the work tells the story of the Central Park Five—boys whose ages ranged between fourteen and sixteen years of age who were convicted of raping a white woman in 1989 even though numerous evidence point to the fact that they were indeed innocent. But I say—and credit to the writers Ava DuVernay, Julian Breece, Robin Swicord, Attica Locke, Michael Starrbury—the series is more than that because the screenplay proves it is able to find ways to tell the boys’ individual stories, including that of their families, and then contextualizing their specific personalities, how they think, how they react, through the details of the crime and the repercussions of being a black or brown person who happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. But that is not all. The work is confident, too, in showing the biases of cops, detectives, lawyers, judges, and other individuals who are supposed to protect and serve with objectivity. Even the wrong decisions by parents and loved ones are not overlooked.

Most impressive about the work is that although it is angry, every situation is presented in a focused, clear, and elegant way. I admired that no detail is treated as unimportant. No scene is too long. No shot is too awkward as the camera lingers on a face for what feels to be an eternity. Observe closely as the boys are interrogated by the police, for forty-six hours without food, water, or even a restroom break. How the questioning evolves into verbal harassment. How words are turned into physical acts of violence. How being slapped around leads to false confessions. Without the patience and the time to use every beat wisely, the piece could have been just another crime drama where we see actors act and we respond. Not here. I felt that the boys on screen were actually being mistreated; that the barrier between the audience and the screen was not there.

Consider how it employs music to support the story being told. Whether it be hip-hop, blues, rap, or R&B, song choices breathe life into the events. This is noticeable from the very first exchange between two key characters. Special Ed’s “I Got It Made” is playing on the background as father and son discuss basketball and the like while eating fast food at home. This is the only time when we will see them truly happy. The contradiction between lyrics and reality perfectly set the tone for what’s about to come. The score, too, is used intelligently—during important revelations, not when people are speaking or clashing. A score on top of a dramatic exchange would have cheapened the material, you see.

The work is directed by Ava DuVernay whose enthusiasm for telling this story can be felt in every minute of the project. It is apparent that she is a filmmaker who loves people of color’s faces. And through that love—that passion—comes understanding on how to light them, how to frame them, how to push or challenge them. And through that love, too, brings out inspired performances from her actors: Caleel Harris and Jovan Adepo as Antron McCray (young and adult, respectively); Ethan Herisse and Chris Chalk as Yusef Salaam; Asante Blackk and Justin Cunningham as Kevin Richardson; Marquis Rodriguez and Freddy Miyares as Raymond Santana; and, last but certainly not least, Jharrel Jerome as Korey Wise—the boy who decides to accompany his friend to the police station. Each of these performers inject painful authenticity to the role, particularly the young actors who must deliver realism in the face of an impossible situation.

“When They See Us” shows a miscarriage of justice in stages in a most mesmerizing manner. It is a very angry movie. And it should be. Yet I think its message is empowering: Stay awake. Because if physical evidence and scientific evidence—facts—could be denied then, it could very well happen again. Especially in this day and age when “alternative facts” are treated as a thing—by the mainstream media, by some “journalists,” by politicians more loyal to their donors than they are to the people who elected them—as if it were all right to tolerate such nonsense. Keep those eyes widen open, especially if you are a person of color, or a minority, in America.

Captive State


Captive State (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Social commentary-heavy “Captive State,” based on the screenplay by Erica Beeney and Rupert Wyatt, is an interesting lo-fi science-fiction picture on paper. Instead of engaging in ostentatious display of special and visual effects through action sequences or focusing on elegant character development, a detached approach is employed as the story follows a group of insurrectionists who wish to destroy a Chicago-based “Closed Zone,” a location where aliens known as Legislators reside (aptly named because they have made and enacted laws ever since humanity’s surrender nine years prior.) It is expected the attack would inspire everyone else around the world to rebel against and usurp the aforementioned extraterrestrial invaders from stealing Earth’s natural resources. The execution leaves a lot to be desired, however.

On the surface, there is tension: we have no attachment to the various insurgents, only their main mission. As a result, we get the feeling that any one of them can drop dead at any second. The camera follows them—a medical student, a mechanic, a father, a soldier, among others—being courageous, afraid, and desperate with little regard to their histories or who they leave at home. A sense of realism is created, from information written on a piece of paper being passed around to the hi-tech bomb capable of camouflage that must be activated and placed at an exact location at the right time. This is when the film is at its best.

However, when the material turns its attention on the three “main” characters—in quotations because we spend a little bit more time with them than the others—the pacing screeches to the halt. In the opening scene we see two brothers whose parents perish in the hands of the invaders. Years later, the elder brother, Rafe (Jonathan Majors), is presumed to be a deceased terrorist, and the younger brother, Gabriel (Ashton Sanders), works in an assembly line where electronics are analyzed for information that could be used against the creatures. Although Majors and Sanders have the versatility to communicate a range of emotions, the screenplay fails to get us to care about them as brothers and as individuals with different end goals.

Not even the great John Goodman, playing a commander in charge of capturing rebels, is able to save the material. He is wonderful in communicating with words but his face tells a completely different story. There is subtlety is how Mulligan carries his power and how he exercises it. But I think the writers’ intention is to create a character who is a master chess player. To me, there is not a shred of mystery on what it is he wishes to attain ultimately. Even I was able to stay one step ahead in regards to the details of his job and the reasons behind his manipulations.

I enjoyed the way it is photographed. “Captive State” offers a near-hopeless future where gray and neutrality is in everyone’s hearts and minds. Bright colors are nowhere to be seen. Garbage is not collected and so they pile up in the neighborhood. The sun always appears to be hidden behind clouds. When we hear music, it is quite depressing and never longer than ten seconds. When it is silent, we hear violence from a distance. Sometimes it is of screaming from horror or pain. Even the spacecrafts look lived-in, decaying.

Directed by Rupert Wyatt, “Captive State” might have benefited from further revisions because some elements are already strong. While an impersonal approach is ambitious, I felt as though the age of drones, lack of privacy, and our every movement being tracked is already here. It is true that we do not have to care deeply for the characters. However, emotions or ideas must be amplified somewhere else. For instance, the screenplay might have attempted to create outrage from communities being forced to live in a police state, the way they are starved to keep them weak physically and mentally, and the brainwashing that occurs to create a semblance of peace.

The Commuter


The Commuter (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

For a good while of Jaume Collet-Serra’s action-thriller “The Commuter,” we get the impression it is going to take us somewhere exciting despite the standard template of an ordinary person suddenly thrust into an extraordinary situation. But once it reaches the halfway point and some of its secrets are revealed, it proves to be yet another uninspired suspense picture in which the protagonist must prove his innocence during a hostage situation. And prior to the expected standoff, plenty of repetition is to be endured.

Liam Neeson plays life insurance salesman Michael MacCauley who is approached by a stranger on a train (Vera Farmiga) with a proposition and a $100,000 on the line. In order to walk away with this money, all he must do is determine which person on the train does not belong, put a tracker onto his or her bag, and walk away. Neeson plays the beleaguered sixty-year-old ex-cop with convincing enthusiasm, but the screenplay by Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi, and Ryan Engle fail to provide personal details about the character amidst the action and plot twists.

As a result, Michael becomes a wooden protagonist. The material hammers us over the head with the fact that he loves his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) and son (Dean-Charles Chapman), but what about his sense of humor, how he is like at his best (or worst), does he have any specific plans after retirement? There is nearly nothing worth knowing about him. Even action-thrillers are not immune from having to contain effective personal drama and seemingly superfluous details in order for the audience to invest into its characters. Collet-Serra has gotten away with this barebones approach, particularly in the wonderful shark picture “The Shallows,” but given that the content of the film touches upon real-world problems like family finances and personal satisfaction regarding one’s career, the overall strategy must change as well.

Some of the fight scenes are downright off-putting. While the picture makes good use of the limited space inside the train, hand-to-hand fights are executed poorly. A particular eyesore is the fight between Michael and one of the commuters he suspects. The fight scene is so exaggerated to the point where it feels like the scene is taken right off movies containing cartoonish violence. It just does not work here because the material has established a more humble tone and atmosphere, as close as possible to reality. In addition, look closely and notice that these fights appear to unfold in an unnatural speed.

As I sat through the film, I got the impression that “The Commuter” might have been a stronger work had it embraced a more cerebral tone, making room to excavate personal motivations; to establish a paranoid mood so no one, not even the protagonist, can be trusted; and to provide more details about each suspect. Instead, we are given a project designed to entertain the lowest dangling fruit.

At Middleton


At Middleton (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

There is a scene that takes place in the middle of “At Middleton,” written by Glenn German and Adam Rodgers, that hints at how wonderful, sweet, and romantic the film could have been. Two strangers who had met each other only about an hour or so climb to the top of a tower. Edith (Vera Farmiga) would rather inhale the breeze and admire the view, but George (Andy Garcia) would rather read off a brochure and learn the importance of the place they stand on. But a couple of minutes later, we discover that the situation is not as simple as it appears.

George and Edith are married—but not to each other. George has a son, Conrad (Spencer Lofranco), who has no interest in the university that his father attended. Edith has a daughter, Audrey (Taissa Farmiga), who, unlike Conrad, is dead set on attending Middleton because she hopes that the linguistics professor she admires will agree to be her advisor. During a campus tour, Edith and George decide to break from the group and get to know one another better—even though they seem to be complete opposites.

The film is at its best when it sticks with the conceit of two people just talking to one another and trying to figure each other out. Though not quite on the level of Richard Linklater’s signature series of films starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, there is an effortlessness in Farmiga and Garcia’s performances that helped me buy into what their characters could have had even though the actors, physically, are not exactly attractive or alluring together. Farmiga is luminous as a woman who enjoys living in the moment and Garcia is fascinating as a man who does not say much but one can tell he feels and thinks a whole lot.

A standout scene involves the central couple having to act on a stage in front of a group of theater students. While on that stage, notice how the camera moves and nails itself in one position. The silence builds to a boil then becomes somewhat overpowering. Both stuck in marriages that are not exactly working out, we learn about Edith and George’s profound sadness. More importantly, we discover how badly they want to escape.

Significantly less impressive are the more comedic scenes in the latter half. One scene that runs too long involves the couple meeting a pair of twenty-year-olds in a relationship. They spend some time inside the dorm room getting high and complaining about what they feel is wrong in their lives. The clash between an elegant exorcism of romantic wants and needs versus an overt disclosure of what they feel are wrong in their lives do not work tonally. Why not make an adult picture that does not try way too hard to be funny and stick with it?

I enjoyed that the screenplay does not force Audrey and Conrad to have any sort of romantic feelings toward one another. The actors look good together physically so writers with less resolve might have been tempted to put a little spice into the equation. Instead, the film, directed by Adam Rodgers, makes the two young people more complicated—even unlikeable at times—than what we come to expect. On that level, it respects the audience.

The Conjuring 2


The Conjuring 2 (2016)
★★★★ / ★★★★

After the terrible mess that is “Insidious: Chapter 2” which followed a refreshingly brilliant predecessor, I was worried about James Wan’s continuation of “The Conjuring,” yet another excellent modern horror addition in his increasingly impressive repertoire. It is a wonderful surprise then that “The Conjuring 2” is able to match its antecedent on a consistent basis, at times even surpassing it, and actually expands the characterizations of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga).

This time, the case takes the married couple to London where a single mother (Frances O’Connor) and her four children are haunted by the spirit of an old man who used to live in their home. The situation is seemingly triggered by Janet (Madison Wolfe) bringing home a home-made Ouija board and, along with her sister (Lauren Esposito), attempting to communicate with the dead. Soon, Janet begins to wake up in the middle of night and finding herself in the living room near a leather chair where the old man passed away…

The writer-director approaches the material with a specific vision and confidence. He engages and terrorizes the viewer by setting up a familiar trope and delivering a punchline that is unexpected. At times the punchline is withheld. For example, the aforementioned Ouija board scene is set up exactly like other movies that feature the mysterious item. But the twist here is that the planchette is never shown moving on its own. We anticipate what might or should happen given our experiences with other, lesser horror films and the brilliance is that when nothing at all happens, our fears and worries are carried onto the next scene. This piggyback approach creates many dramatic payoffs.

Just about every performer on screen have a certain believability to them. For example, judging simply on looks, O’Connor who plays the mother has a certain air of working class to her. Such a comment is not meant to be glib. On the contrary, I commend the casting directors for choosing someone who fits the material extremely well. O’Connor’s character, Peggy, looks tired, her clothes are worn and plain, and she appears as though she belongs in a house that doesn’t have very many adornments or amenities. It shows us that the family have limited means and so they cannot just pack up and go upon their encounter of paranormal activity.

Another example is Wolfe who plays the main daughter who is terrorized by the demonic spirit. Her ways of commanding the camera when directly looking at it or away from it are completely different—an impressive quality especially for someone her age because so many performers across all genres do not possess such a skill. Because Wolfe is so magnetic, it is that much easier to get into the mindset of her character and relate to her plight. I also enjoyed her scenes with Wilson and Farmiga because she consistently proves that she has the power to match their subtleties.

Scares are potent and creative. Wan has a knack for allowing the tension to swell until it is almost unbearable. While numerous jump scares are employed, I argue that the best scenes are drawn out, allowing time for images, well-placed and modulated shadows, tone and atmosphere, camera movement, and score, to create a synergy. Alfred Hitchcock once said, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” There is plenty of anticipation here.

“The Conjuring 2” is one of the most technically impressive horror films to have come out in the past few years—an accomplishment not to be underestimated due to the sheer number of horror movies released in one year alone. It is almost perfect visually. I just wish it had utilized less CGI, particularly the scene involving The Crooked Man coming after a little boy. Perhaps it might have been scarier if a giant, tactile puppet had been used instead of relying on the magic of a computer. Still, such a snag can be easily forgiven because just about everything else it offers is first-class.

Higher Ground


Higher Ground (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Young Corinne joined a fundamentalist community and started to devote herself to God when she was a child. She found comfort in God, religion, and her close community when her parents (John Hawkes, Donna Murphy) could no longer stand to be in each other’s presence. When Corinne was a teen (Taissa Farmiga), she had her first child with Ethan (Boyd Holbrook), a musician with dreams of making it big. They got married and, like all marriages, it was tough especially since they were so young. But there were good times.

Now with three children, Corinne (Vera Farmiga) begins to doubt. No matter how much she endures circle of prayers and ponders the possible meanings behind the words of God, she cannot help but wonder what else is out there or that if she is missing something more profound and liberating than what is currently in her life. She wonders if it is time for a change.

“Higher Ground,” based on the memoir “This Dark World” by Carolyn S. Briggs, is a rare film because it is able to directly deal with a person falling in and out of faith without pandering. Propelled by Vera Farmiga’s humanistic direction, it is consistently focused in telling Corinne’s journey and why the decisions she makes are right for her. However, the material is not just about faith. As she begins to consider life outside of her religion, her marriage with Ethan (Joshua Leonard) starts to fall apart.

It is first and foremost about what many people feel and go through. When it comes to Corinne and Ethan’s marriage, there is genuine insight because it is made clear that their troubles is not about what he does or does not do to or for her. There are just those times when you realize that your love for a person is no longer on the same level as before. There is room to wonder. Maybe the person Corinne is now is so different from many years ago that she has learned to function on autopilot and settled.

“At least I’m trying,” Ethan says to Corinne as they watch their son playing soccer. Perhaps that is not the point. Or maybe it is. Corinne and Ethan’s marriage is handled so thoughtfully, it is difficult to pick a side. We feel for both the man and the woman because we realize that Corinne doubting her faith affects both of them deeply. Despite the fact that they have fights that range from passive-aggressiveness, where one can barely look at the other while sitting around the dinner table, to full-on physical and verbal confrontations, not once do we question their devotion for each other.

And yet their love faces some challenges. As their marriage falls apart, Corinne begins to look at a married man in their fundamentalist circle. There is also Liam (Sean Mahon), her scholarly mail carrier from Dublin. They meet in the library quite often. He recommends her novels and books of poetry. She welcomes his flirtations to signal her availability. Still, it is not just about being with a man so she can live happily ever after. It is about exploring possibilities–seeds that might grow into something new.

“Higher Ground,” based on the screenplay by Carolyn S. Briggs and Tim Metcalfe, is smartly written and directed because it underlines what makes the characters flawed and human rather than what makes them “soldiers of God.” I do not subscribe to a religion but I always appreciate it when something or someone attempts to make me want to understand more without the approach feeling like a lecture or an obligation.

The Conjuring


The Conjuring (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Horror movies do not get the laudation they deserve because a good number of them are shockingly bad and thrice more settle for just being mediocre. Great horror is very difficult to achieve so many filmmakers in the genre often end up relying on blood and violence to generate would-be scares. It feels as if there is a collective act of surrender in giving the audience something to be excited about.

It is surprising then that once in a blue moon a horror picture comes along and surprises because it is ambitious, confident, and smart about what it hopes to accomplish. Right from the opening scene, we get a sense that “The Conjuring,” directed by James Wan, is a different breed: behind it is an eye that is conscious of the nuts and bolts of what makes horror movies so fun to watch. A pair of nurses who believe that a doll is able to move on its own should be funny. And it is–for a split second. Utilizing well-placed pauses between dialogue, a heavy silence as the camera scans a room, and an awareness of what should be shown (and when), it sets up very familiar scenes in ways that can be appreciated.

The freaky Annabelle doll is only the scent of a delectable meal. After the Perron family moves into a farmhouse in Rhode Island, strange events start to occur. Carolyn (Lili Taylor) finds bruises all over her body but is unaware how she gets them. April (Kyla Deaver) picks up a music box next to a lake and begins to have an imaginary friend. Meanwhike, as Christine (Joey King) sleeps, something grabs her leg and tries to pull her off the bed. Details like creaky doors, isolated smell of rotten meat, and clocks stopping at exactly 3:07 in the morning go a long way because we care about the family.

The first hour is exemplary because each scene is a focused escalation from bizarre to horrifying. The key is going for the jugular without rushing for the jolt. Instead, a situation builds up slowly, interestingly without false alarms, and then suddenly until a saturation point. As we observe the Perrons being tortured by the paranormal entities, it begins to feel like we are a tenant living in one of the rooms and wondering what the hell we got ourselves into. The director is aware that what he is playing with is not new and so it is all the more important to provide a personal touch with each encounter.

Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson playing paranormal investigators Lorraine and Ed Warren, respectively, do a respectable work embodying a couple who has been in the job for so long. And so it is a disappointment that the writers, Chad Hayes and Carey Hayes, end up making the case somewhat more interesting than the demonologists. Ed and Lorraine get a subplot about their daughter and an exorcism that has gone awry, merely functioning as footnotes in the big picture. I felt like I knew the Perron case well but not the couple examining it.

When the film gets showy, especially during the final twenty minutes, it loses a degree of its power. Images of objects floating in the air and furnitures being thrown by an invisible force are just too far–and standard–from the moody aura it has created for itself. Since it falters to remain true to its identity all the way through, it is short of being exceptional.

“The Conjuring” is a step in the right direction for the genre. It shows that with the right material, talent, and enthusiasm behind the lens horror movies made in the twenty-first century can be very good, can be taken seriously, and can be accessible even for those who are not generally fans of scary movies.

But is it one to be remembered? I’m optimistic.